Original Religion

Michael Metzger

The authors of a new study say reports of religion’s decline in America have been exaggerated. But what if the study instead says we’re in a post-Christian age?

I read a recent study where the authors claim Americans are becoming more religious, not less, and that religious institutions are thriving, not declining. They base this on responses where many individuals who report no religious affiliation or check “none” on surveys display a wide variety of religious practices. This includes atheists and agnostics.

It also includes Christians. They’re mostly evangelicals in new churches, small churches, or megachurches. When they don’t see their faith or denomination listed, they check off the only remaining option, “none of the above,” even though they have many religious practices.

Finally, “None of the above” also includes members of the burgeoning Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities throughout the US. The authors say when we total these groups, we see Americans are becoming more religious and religious institutions are thriving.

Depends on we how define “religion.” The term comes from the Middle Ages, when the church shaped European culture. Religion originally meant “to rebind.” Re = “back to the original place,” ligio = “to bind” (ligio is where we get our word ligament, which binds bone to bone). The church drew this definition of religion from Jewish tradition where the most common verb is “teshuva,” “to return to the original place.” Religion is rituals rebinding our ways to God’s ways, returning to them for we are all like sheep, easily led astray.

This isn’t the survey’s definition of religion. It’s “constantly evolving” the authors say. I recognize the meaning of words can evolve, but not all words. The true meaning of the word God doesn’t evolve. But the definition of religion apparently has. And I think that’s evidence of our living in a post-Christian age.

Here’s what I mean. In the eighteenth century, the meaning of the word original shifted. Before, it was related to origin and described something that returned us to the original place. Since the eighteenth century, “original” has come to mean fresh and new, having no relation to the origin or to anything between the origin and the present moment. This semantic shift was part of a paradigm shift in Western cultures. They were shifting away from the Middle Ages, toward a post-Christian age.

C.S. Lewis felt this formed a “Great Divide” between the old western world (the Middle Ages) and the new western world, the present moment. In the Middle Ages, the church defined religion as returning, rebinding. It was good. In the new western world, many Christians are “committed to novelty, to spontaneity, to the now,” writes Peter Leithart. The fresh and new. Ritual, with its atmosphere of ancient authority and its (apparently) bland repetitions, is out of step, he adds. Most Christians “would rather die than do it over again.”[1] We hear this in the popular saying, “I’m into a relationship with God, not religion.”

Which is exactly what Philip Rieff predicted in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. He described an emergent culture where “a wider range of people will have ‘spiritual’ concerns and engage in ‘spiritual’ pursuits.” This will be seen in new churches where “people will continue to genuflect and read the Bible,” but no prophet will denounce how this is not original religion for it is not a return to historic Christianity. These churches will consist, rather, in a consumerist desire to pick and choose one’s own spirituality through broad experimentation (i.e., church-shopping).

My sense is these are the Christians who check off “none of the above” when taking religious surveys. Protestant? Catholic? Orthodox? Nope. None of the above. That leaves us with traditions, mostly evangelical, that began on this side of Lewis’ Great Divide. That’s important as Lewis felt this new Western world terminates in a post-Christian age. I’m not saying these Christians are post-Christian. I’m saying they seem to be impacted by post-Christian views of religion. For me, the study indicates we’re in a post-Christian age.

This would mean reports of religion’s decline are not exaggerated. Original religion is declining. The church’s definition of religion—rituals rebinding us to the original—has been eclipsed by a negative view of religion. It’s either bad (bland rituals) or good (picking and choosing one’s own spirituality). That’s how a post-Christian age defines religion.

It all depends on how we define “religion.”

I close with two comments.

I recognize some will feel this is much ado about nothing. Many are Christians who are upset about how the definition of marriage is evolving. Or gender categories are evolving. It’s a little inconsistent to feel one’s own evolving view of religion is nothing while feeling upset when others adopt an evolving view of marriage and gender. Can’t have it both ways.

Second, the sons of Issachar are lauded for understanding the times in which they lived. This enabled them to know what to do. My sense is few American Christians understand we’re in a post-Christian age. They don’t know what to do. C.S. Lewis did. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”[2]

The right road returns us to the old western world, to original religion that recognized we live in an enchanted world embodied in sacraments, rituals, creeds, candles, catechisms, and so on. It’s the enchanted world that Lewis sought to reenchant in our dis-enchanted age. I’d urge modern Christians to return to these pre-eighteenth century religious traditions.

 

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003).

[2] C.S. Lewis, God in The Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970).

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3 Comments

  1. Having two homes on both coasts of the USA offers an interesting vantage point. My main home is located in Vero Beach, FL which is primarily a town serving retirees, second home folks, and many middle to upper class families almost all of whom consider themselves conservative politically speaking. During the pandemic, we were forced to hold services online for a brief period of time. But unlike many state jurisdictions, we were allowed to reconvene as a congregation in a relatively short while. Our attendance returned to where it once had previously been, and people expressed that they missed the sense of community and corporate worship.
    Our home in San Francisco had a rather stark difference to Vero Beach in that the area is loaded with “creatives” primarily from the millennial ad Gen-Z sectors of our population. It never ceases to amaze me about how willing Californians in general are willing to be told by their government what to do in contrast to Florida. The state officials here banned church worship services for well over a year since they were not deemed to be vital meeting places. In contrast, taverns and bars were allowed to remain open since their services were considered vital. The church we attend serves a rather homogenous congregation composed of millennials and Gen-Z singles. Prior to the pandemic, church attendance averaged about 350 and post pandemic at around 100. I have become close to the pastor of this church and he is discouraged by the drop off in attendance. He attributes the loss of his congregation to several issues; 1) there was a migration of employees away from the expensive cities to more suburban and rural locations; 2) these two demographic sectors are loaded with what Skye Jethani describes as “Consumer Christians” who are shopping for the easiest and lightest wat to “do church.” Once they were online to worship Sunday mornings, they wandered to those mega-churches onstream which marked most of their checklist of requirements for church. They were forced at the time to live rather atomistically during the pandemic and have continued to do so after the restrictions were lifted. They are famous for wanting to keep their options open and don’t give the importance in participating in a community much prominence.
    This causes me to wonder about how effective the importance of community was nurtured in this church setting that like most young churches were nomads renting municipal properties for their worship services. Meeting in small home groups was difficult since many lived in small apartments with roommates. Did I mention that most were single professionals?
    Sacramental rituals seem to be a foreign notion to these church goers. Yet like Tim Keller (whose congregations are composed of a similar profile) says these folks are still hungry for a “brush” with the power of God. Unfortunately, those churches attempting to cater to the consumerist mindset are on a pathway that seldom leads to a “road to Damascus” experience.

  2. Paul writes to Timothy in 2Tim 3:1-9, giving a laundry list of behaviors that I can see in our society today. But the main phrase that jumps out is verse 5a “having a form of Godliness, but denying its power.” By redefining “religion”, the authors of the study, water down faith and doctrine, looking for any form of Godliness they can find. But the forms they do find have no power. For this reason, the church is ignored by society and has no influence.

    The “Old time religion” has power but lacks the way to communicate that power to get the world’s attention which is why modern churches have gone commercial. God is not surprised by this, and the harvest is still white, but we need new ways to communicate the “original” gospel to reach a lost world.

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